One of the most persistent issues in public transportation is the so-called “last mile” problem. The essence of the problem is that, if the distance between the nearest transit stop and a rider’s home or office is too far to comfortably walk, potential riders will be more likely to drive than use public transit. The rise of smartphone enabled mobility options like ridesharing, bike-share, and e-scooters have been pitched as potential solutions to this problem. However, some cities have found that these technologies may create as many problems as they solve.
This post will focus in particular on the rise of e-scooters. Over roughly the last two years, e-scooters from companies like Bird and Lime have proliferated across American cities. Often appearing seemingly out of nowhere as companies frequently launch the product by dropping off a batch of scooters overnight without warning, they have been a source of angst for many city officials.
As the scooters spread, ridership has proliferated. Thanks to ease of use, the proliferation of smartphones, and increasing comfort with new forms of mobility, ridership has accelerated at a faster pace than ride-hailing apps, bikeshare programs, or other mobility platforms that have developed in recent years.
With this growth though has come challenges. In June, Nashville chose to ban e-scooters in the aftermath of the city’s first rider death. Last year, in response to concerns about safety and obstruction of sidewalks, Cleveland banned e-scooters. In the initial rollout period Cleveland was far from alone, as cities from St. Louis to San Francisco to Santa Monica also moved to ban or significantly reduce the number of scooters allowed.
Some of these bans, or at least use restrictions, may have been justified. Because they have no defined ports at which to be put away, scooters are often left blockading the sidewalk. At least 8 scooter riders have died in crashes, and users often remain confused about what laws apply to them and where they can ride. Hospitals across the country have seen a spike in emergency room visits related to scooter crashes, and the Centers for Disease Control has found that head trauma is the most common injury resulting from a scooter crash.
Slowly though, cities have begun experimenting with ways to let scooters in without letting them run wild. Last month Cleveland allowed scooters back in, with new limitations on where they are allowed to go and who is allowed to ride. Norfolk, VA recently contracted with e-scooter company Lime to allow them to have a local monopoly over scooter service in the city. The move may allow Norfolk greater control over how Lime operates within its borders, which could ultimately increase safety.
Given the obvious potential for e-scooters to increase mobility to parts of a city that aren’t within easy walking distance of transit stations, cities should continue working to find ways to allow them in while mitigating safety concerns. The results in cities like Norfolk and Cleveland that are working to introduce regulation to this new industry will be important to watch in the coming months.